American airports expand face scanning of US citizens

airport facial scanners-2

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Airports in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Houston, Las Vegas, Miami, New York and Washington already use face scans for departing international flights, but only some arriving international flights. But this program is being expanded in a major way.

Orlando International Airport, Florida’s busiest airport, will be the first in the nation to require a face scan of passengers on ALL arriving and departing international flights, a move that worries privacy advocates.

The face scan expansion is costing the Orlando airport authority $4 million. The “every passenger scanned” program should be rolled out at other airports in other U.S. cities in the next year, said John Wagner, an official with U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

The image from the face scan is compared to a Department of Homeland Security biometric database that has collected images of people who should be on the flight in order to verify the traveler’s identity. The images are held in the database for 14 days before being deleted.

But some privacy advocates say there are no formal rules in place for handling data gleaned from the scans, nor formal guidelines on what should happen if a passenger is wrongly prevented from boarding.

“We’re comparing you against a photograph you’ve given a federal or state agency for the purposes of travel,” Wagner said. “You know your picture is being taken. You’re standing in front of a camera. There’s nothing subversive about this, and we’re only comparing you against your passport or driver’s license photo.”

U.S. citizens at these airports can opt out, but the process is difficult and requires several additional documents on file with the TSA. But the agency “doesn’t seem to be doing an adequate job letting Americans know how they can opt out,” said Harrison Rudolph, an associate at the Center on Privacy & Technology at the Georgetown University Law Center.

“We’re not talking about one gate,” he said. “We’re talking about every international departure gate, which is a huge expansion of the number of people who will be scanned. Errors tend to go up as uses go up.”

Orlando International Airport had about 6 million international passengers in the past year. Face scans for arrivals and departures should be fully in place by the end of the year, although passengers landing at Orlando International Airport currently undergo them upon arriving.

Most passengers say they understand the concerns about privacy, and that they may have to give up privacy in exchange for beefed up security.

Two U.S. senators, Ed Markey, D-Mass. and U.S. Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, sent a letter last month to the Department of Homeland Security, which is home to the border protection agency. They urged that formal rules be implemented before the program is expanded any further.

“It will also ensure a full examination of this potentially sweeping program that could impact the personal privacy of every American leaving the country by airport,” the letter said.




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